Friday, April 23, 2010

Gaming, Evil, and the Virtual World

Having recently read a blogosphere exchange about whether or not gaming can be art, several recent moments of online unpleasantness cause me to wonder if gaming can be actively evil.

As a pastor and a gamer, I try to steer away from games that are overtly negative. Meaning, I don't like games that require me to steal, or games that require me to harm innocents, or games that so deeply revel in horror that you can't play 'em without indulging in a fantasy of darkness. True, I do indulge in plenty of..err...aggressive games, and now and again wonder if my diet of simulated violence is entirely healthy.

Lately, though, I've been struggling with how to deal with my encounters with rather more concrete forms of gaming evil, namely, human beings. When you play online, you encounter all manner of blighted souls, and filtered through the medium of a game, it's a bit difficult to know how to respond to them.

I've played a little bit of a free online game called UMAG (follow the link, and you'll lose a few hours. You've been warned). It's a turn-based artillery game, in which folks fire shells at one another whilst texting comments that appear in little thought bubbles above your tank. It's simple. It's goofy. It's fun. Or it usually is.

Two nights ago, as I dropped into a game, the guy in position to strike at me texted the following to those around him:

[sumbuddy help me kill this Jew]

Suddenly, the game wasn't fun at all. With two Jewish boys and a Jewish wife and an extended Jewish family that I love more than I love myself, that kind of hatred tends to evoke a blind rage response. I took the guy out, of course, digging him into a hole and then dropping a MIRV on him. But that wasn't satisfactory. That sort of thing goes far beyond smacktalk, and into a dark place where play is no longer possible.

That was not the end of this week's online encounters with antisemitism. Last night, as I played through the delightfully frenetic FPS Battlefield: Bad Company 2, I found myself face to face with an opposing player whose avatar was named JEWSLAYER14.

Again, I took him out, with a fusillade of well placed rounds from the main gun of my BMD3 light tank. But again, that wasn't enough. Things were no longer fun. Someone who would choose that for their online identity is a person with whom I can't play, or have conversation. They are the Enemy, in a very spiritual way.

Electronic Arts, which publishes the Bad Company series, makes a point of booting such folks from their servers. Their Terms Of Service explicitly state that hate speech will get you thrown out...but folks like that still pop up. My hope is that my second encounter doesn't have 13 friends, but is number 14 because they've been kicked 13 times.

It does raise several conundrums about confronting virtual evil. First, it's very easy for evil to hide and reform and resurface on the interwebs. Removing a user for TOS violations is no more effective than deleting a spam email. They'll be back, with a different and equally offensive name, spitting out the same hatred they were before. There, I think folks in the gaming community are responsible for enforcing a community ethic. If someone goes beyond mocking you for your pathetic noobness and is expressing racial hatred, they're ruining the game for those around them. Gamers need not to tolerate that in their online friends, and if you're hosting a server and encounter someone who is eager to engage in pointless hatred, ban or block or kick them.

The difficulty comes with point number two. The "gaming community" is a pretty wildly diverse place. I've been on servers in the online game Warhawk, for instance, where everyone is screaming in Arabic, and the gamertags are things like jihad4ever1972. My suspicion is that a gamer with a tag like JEWSLAYER14 might not be booted from such a server.

Here, the question becomes how deeply a for-profit entity is willing to stand by the values of the culture from which it springs. The deep hatreds that have lead to such horrors in the meatspace world should be resisted wherever we encounter them.

If Electronic Arts and Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo put serious effort into keeping their gaming will remain a playground on which we can have all kinds of fun.